Stephen answered:

— I do.

Wells turned to the other fellows and said:

— O, I say, here’s a fellow says he kisses his mother every night before he goes to bed.

The other fellows stopped their game and turned round, laughing. Stephen blushed under their eyes and said:

— I do not.

Wells said:

— O, I say, here’s a fellow says he doesn’t kiss his mother before he goes to bed.


And, of course, all the other fellows laugh at poor Stephen again.

This traumatic (and funny, if one allows oneself to be cruel) episode in the life of Stephen Dedalus was nonetheless formative: he thinks to himself that since Wells is in third of grammar and ahead of him in that subject, there must be some grammatical reason the fellows laughed at both of his answers.

Of course, the reader (presumably) understands that Wells was merely teasing Stephen, and the fact that he changed answers to try and avoid being laughed at was what was so funny to the fellows.

But back to this episode being “formative”: since opposite answers were both found funny by Wells and the fellows, Stephen assumes that this must be reflective of some quality of grammar that he is not yet familiar with. I.e. he assumes it to be a peculiarity of language itself causing his schoolmates to laugh at him, rather than simple adolescent cruelty.

But I suppose I am getting ahead of myself a bit.

In this post, I intend to review James Joyce’s first (and most accessible, so I’ve read and been told) novel, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.”

Pulcra sunt quae visa placent.
Pulcra sunt quae visa placent.

As usual, I’m not really following any sort of set approach toward reviewing this novel. I would not turn this blog post in for any English class, is what I mean to say, and I don’t recommend using it as a source, should any undergraduate happen to come across it while desperately searching for sources to use for a comp paper.

At any rate, here goes:

The key to “understanding” this novel is mentioned right there in the title: it’s a “portrait.” Id est, it is not an “adventure,” or a “romance,” or even a “detailed character study.” It’s a portrait (actually five of them), “painted” not with oils or watercolors (or what have you) but with words.

The “artist” is the author, James Joyce. I.e. this novel is semi-autobiographical. It’s not clear to what extent the protagonist Stephen Dedalus “is” James Joyce, and I do not intend to investigate this right now, as I do not especially care to.

The novel is, at the risk of sounding trite, beautifully written. Joyce has a reputation for being “hard to read;” I can state with confidence that the only “hard” part of reading this novel came at the very beginning. I have attempted to start this novel a few times over the years, actually, but only made it past the first few pages on my most recent attempt.

Just for the heck of it, here is how the novel opens:

ONCE upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo. . . .

His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face.

He was baby tuckoo. The moocow came down the road where Betty Byrne lived: she sold lemon platt.

O, the wild rose blossoms
On the little green place.

He sang that song. That was his song.


Following this odd opening, the focus of the novel shifts for a moment to a brief reflection upon the sensations and smells involved with wetting one’s bed, how the protagonist(which at this point is known only as “baby tuckoo,” which may or may not also be the name of some character in a children’s story that is never actually told all the way through)’s mother and father have different smells, to another center-justified song/poem that’s all “tralalala”s, to the protagonist’s Uncle Charles and Dante clapping for him, as he dances to the tralalalas.

Please understand that the wonky punctuation I just used was intentional. It was an attempt to restate (or “re-paint”) the first page of this novel, to tell what is happening, to illustrate it for you, the person reading my blog.

Please understand that it is very difficult to do this. And if one approaches this opening page the way one approaches an ordinary novel, i.e. by trying to impose a definite narrative structure upon it, with one thing happening first, then another thing happening because of the first thing, etc., one is only going to frustrate oneself.

And one is being obtuse as all get out when one does so: to repeat, the key to understanding this novel lies right there in the title: it’s a portrait.

And to repeat, I attempted to force a narrative structure onto these first few pages a few different times, and to be clear, I was being obtuse in doing so.

One does not (necessarily) wonder, when looking at a painted portrait (or even a photograph), “What was the subject of this portrait doing right before this portrait was painted/taken?” Portraits are of course representative of a definite moment in time, and if one looks closely one can make guesses as to what the subject was up to before the portrait was painted/taken, as well as what the subject may get up to afterwards, but ultimately those things are irrelevant to the portrait itself.

At any rate I could go on and on waxing poetic (or trying to) about that sort of thing; trust me when I tell you that in order to appreciate this novel, one should think of it as a portrait… just like the title says.

But a portrait of what, exactly?

As alluded to before, the novel is split into five chapters, each one essentially being a glimpse into the consciousness of Stephen Dedalus at various points in his life, with each successive chapter jumping ahead a few years. The first one, what with the wetting the bed and the moocows and whatnot, takes place when Stephen is very young. It begins before he’s even started school, then progresses through to a couple events that took place during his first year at a Catholic boarding school.

“Hold on,” you may be saying. “That sounds like a plot to me. What about all that guff about how there’s no narrative and whatall?”

Well, yes, there are events that take place, but they are loosely connected at best. The connections have as much to do with the words used to describe them as they do with the events themselves.

Exempli gratia:

It was nice and warm to see the lights in the castle. It was like something in a book. Perhaps Leicester Abbey was like that. And there were nice sentences in Doctor Cornwell’s Spelling Book. They were like poetry but they were only sentences to learn the spelling from.

Wolsey died in Leicester Abbey
Where the abbots buried him.
Canker is a disease of plants,
Cancer one of animals.


Later (or maybe even before, I don’t remember for sure), a Mr Casey is said to have a pouch of silver in his throat, but Stephen knows this isn’t actually true. The mention of cancer indicates to the reader (and to Stephen) that Mr Casey has cancer, though it is never explicitly said that he has cancer.

I apologize for being unsure of the chronology of the novel there. The novel features countless internal references such as that one, references that construct Stephen’s consciousness as well as the reader’s appreciation of the novel itself. Like, well, like life, these references are not all organized in bullet points, separated and independent of each other. The meaning of one thing depends on the context of another, the difference between them, the sameness of them.

It is very difficult to describe this novel without falling into the abstract. And while there are passages that could be described as “abstract” in this novel, it would be erroneous to describe any or all of this novel as “abstract.” Every word, every fragment of verse, every oddly-placed punctuation mark, every latin phrase, all of these things were put there with a specific and definite (i.e. “not abstract at all”) purpose: to take the reader into the mind of the protagonist, to allow the reader to see the world through his eyes, to feel and think what he is thinking.

But I can’t tell you that without using abstractions. A more skilled reviewer could no doubt do a better job of explaining what I am attempting to explain, but no matter how skilled the reviewer or how accurate the review, it would not match the esthetic (sic) experience of reading the novel.

So let me just summarize a few things that happen:

Midway through the novel, when he is sixteen, Stephen’s thoughts turn toward the romantic. He has a love interest who appears at various points in the novel, but he has trouble connecting with her in any meaningful way. He is afraid to even kiss her.

Meanwhile, he consorts with prostitutes. For a brief period in the novel (there are no graphic scenes in the novel, for the record), he’s bounding around the red light district like Randy Pan the Goat Boy.

(That’s a Bill Hicks reference, btw.)

At any rate, I am going to come back to this post later. I will publish it as-is, and continue from here later.


So it’s later, I suppose. The first part of this post was published on March 9, 2018. It is now March 20 of the same year.

I was listening to a lecture by Alan Watts yesterday, either this one or this one (for the record, those titles have very little to do with what he was actually lecturing about; they were created by the person running the “Alan Watts Wisdom” YouTube channel to draw in clicks, I assume), and at one point in one of those lectures, or possibly even one I listened to a few days before, he vocalizes “tralalalala” while talking about how when we humans were born, we were unable to perceive any distinction between ourselves and the world around us.

I have no idea whether Watts was a Joyce fan, but when I heard him say “tralalalala” it made something click in my brain regarding the novel I am reviewing in this post:

As I mentioned, there is a poem/song on the first page of this novel that features some “tralala”s. Here it is, just for the heck of it:

Tralala lala,
Tralala tralaladdy,
Tralala lala,
Tralala lala.


There’s another poem that comes right after that, and I think it’s also key to understanding Stephen Dedalus’ character development across the literary “portrait”. It appears on the second page of my copy of the novel, so I guess I didn’t think about it when I was writing the first part of this post. It’s easily visible here, and anyways I will also post it here for the heck of it, along with the prose that comes before it:

Uncle Charles and Dante clapped. They were older than his father and mother but uncle Charles was older than Dante.

Dante had two brushes in her press. The brush with the maroon velvet back was for Michael Davitt and the brush with the green velvet back was for Parnell. Dante gave him a cachou every time he brought her a piece of tissue paper.

The Vances lived in number seven. They had a different father and mother. They were Eileen’s father and mother. When they were grown up he was going to marry Eileen. He hid under the table. His mother said:

—O, Stephen will apologise.

Dante said:

—O, if not, the eagles will come and pull out his eyes.—

Pull out his eyes,
Pull out his eyes.

Pull out his eyes,
Pull out his eyes,


And I “apologise” for perhaps being a bit scatterbrained with my approach here, but getting back to what I wrote at the end of the first part of this post, there comes a point in Stephen’s life when he consorts with prostitutes. The novel doesn’t explicitly say how many (or give any lurid details as to his actual dalliances, as I think I already mentioned), but it is hinted at that there were quite a few of them. And to repeat, these dalliances occur when Stephen is 16.

Not long after these dalliances are mentioned, there’s some sort of “retreat” or something at Stephen’s Catholic boarding school. And it isn’t an especially enjoyable sort of retreat, it’s more along the lines of a “scare the shit out of the students with threats of fire and brimstone” sort of retreat.

This is, in my opinion, perhaps the most tedious section of the novel. The “stream of consciousness” style that floats from scene to scene is held fast for several pages, just as Stephen’s attention is held fast to the sermon being given by the priest at his school’s retreat.

I won’t quote from it directly, but the gist of his sermon is that all of the students present are sinners who must confess their sins or face eternal damnation. This sermon has a profound effect on Stephen, one his friends take note of. He becomes withdrawn (even more than usual), he doesn’t act like his usual self, and so on.

The sermon compels Stephen to confess his sins regarding his red light district adventures, but fear of retribution outside the confession box (or even just being seen differently by whichever local priest he might confess to) prevents him from confessing at his school. So he sets out walking, and he keeps going until he finds a church in a working-class part of the city. He confesses to the priest there, who is somewhat shocked by his confession, being that Stephen is only 16. Nonetheless the priest absolves Stephen of his sins and advises him to try and curb his appetites regarding prostitutes. Which Stephen presumably does: in the glimpses of his life shown in the novel, he doesn’t go to the red light district and prance around like Randy Pan the Goat Boy anymore.

This, I just realized (I can be dreadfully slow on the uptake at times), hearkens back to the “Apologise, pull out his eyes” poem from the very beginning: if he doesn’t “apologise” for his sins, he fears he will be punished for them.

This is central to Catholic theology, as well as Christian theology in general. I am not Catholic, so I can’t speak personally to the ins and outs of Catholicism regarding this issue, but I was born and raised Southern Baptist. And despite the many differences between those two denominations, the idea of confessing one’s sins and asking for forgiveness is key to both of them. Southern Baptists don’t require “confession” per se, but the same basic idea is there.

Getting back to my mention of Alan Watts, Watts once spoke about how we adults see children dancing. If a child is simply dancing, with no reason to dance other than the fact that they enjoy it, it’s much more pleasing to watch. We adults can see that they are dancing simply because they enjoy it, that doing so brings them immense pleasure, pleasure that is not dependent on the approval of whoever might be watching.

This is quite different, Watts says (and I agree), than telling a child to dance, encouraging the child to dance a certain way, praising them when they dance the way we want them to and scolding them when they don’t. When this occurs, Watts says, the child has lost something: they are no longer just dancing because dancing is fun, they are dancing for adult approval. And furthermore the adults know that the child is not dancing just to be dancing, which causes them to lose some appreciation for the child’s dance: they recognize that the dance is not an expression of pure “joy” or whatever, but rather an expression of yearning for adult approval.

For the record I am not particularly compelled to watch children dance, nor am I expressing disapproval toward anyone who sends their child to a dance studio for lessons. I just recognize that the metaphor of the child’s dance used by Watts applies to this novel. Especially when you also include Watts’ idea that very young children have no conception of being separate from the world around them. The parents’ intervention regarding telling the child how to dance represents the beginning of the child seeing himself/herself not as part of a unified world, but as being something separate from it. Whereas the child once danced with no idea that his/her dance was even noticed by anyone, he/she now knows that other people are watching. The steps and gestures that were once done for their own sake are now being done for the appreciation and approval of others.

This may seem contradictory: if the child recognizes there are other distinct personalities in his/her world, it may seem that this is more of a “unified” view of the world than the child had prior to recognizing this. And in a way, it is, and to be clear this recognition is an essential part of growing up and functioning in the world, and is not a “bad” thing at all.

But to Watts’ Taoism-influenced view, the recognition of the self as something separate from the rest of everything is itself the separation. To Watts’ view, and to the view of many Taoist sages, Zen Buddhists, Hindu mystics, and others, this separation is merely an illusion. I.e. we humans are not actually a thing apart from the universe we inhabit, we are in reality a manifestation of it.

Therefore, the abbreviated life story of any given “sage” or “Buddha” or whatever might go something like this:

1. Birth – has no conception of “self,” sees no distinction between self and the world.

2. Childhood – interacts with adults and other children, develops idea of self as distinct from others and from the world.

3. Adulthood – develops and hones self, experiences both positive and negative things as a result of being oneself.

4. “Sagehood” – recognizes that this “self” is an illusory construct, seeks to dismantle this construct and examine it, so that he/she might return to a more natural/innocent/whatever state of being.

I am not sure whether Watts (or any Taoist, Buddhist, Hindu, et al.) would approve of that little summarization, nonetheless there you have it. And before anyone starts to think I have gone completely off-topic here, I posit that Stephen Dedalus’ progression as a human being follows this pattern pretty darn closely. Although I wouldn’t necessarily try to claim that he is any sort of “sage” at the end of the novel.

But that might be due to the fact that “adulthood” is only beginning at the end of this novel. At the end, Stephen begins to reject all of the things he has been taught, and makes what he (and many readers) considers to be an incredibly profound proclamation. To wit:

—Look here, Cranly, he said. You have asked me what I would do and what I would not do. I will tell you what I will do and what I will not do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use—silence, exile and cunning.

And that is, in all honesty, a pretty brave and “sage-like” thing for a young man to commit to. It’s been quoted a gajillion times by internet intellectuals as a motto, one that echoes the libertarian manifestoes of Ayn Rand and others.

It’s unfortunate that Stephen’s success or failure in this enterprise is not expounded upon in this novel. Perhaps I will find out more about it when I read Ulysses, though I would probably do well to review Homer’s Odyssey first.

At any rate, and admittedly this is a bit childish of me, the reason I named this post what I did was that at the beginning of the last chapter, before Stephen makes his grand individualistic proclamation, his mother was giving him a bath. I have no idea how common it was for 20-year-old men back then to be bathed by their mothers, at any rate the grand individual was getting his ears scrubbed by his mother not too terribly long before deciding to eschew society and unwittingly become an idol to many Individualists on the internet.

Which probably merits a Freudian analysis if anything ever did, hardy har har. But I have no interest in pulling that thread, so I’m not a gonna.

Thanks for reading.

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